The Chemistry of Love and Cystic Fibrosis

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Professor David Smith of the University of York is a figure few non-chemistry student readers may have heard of and, before researching for the LGBT+ magazine, I had not either. However, this extraordinary chemistry professor’s work and how the health of his same-sex partner, now husband, has shaped his research simply deserves to be highlighted. 

Professor Smith began his academic career as a lecturer at the University of York in 1999. In 2002, he first came out as gay, before expressing more widely his sexual orientation in 2005-06. According to Professor Smith in an interview with C&EN, the latter was precipitated by a student complaint made to the head of the chemistry department about comments of a homophobic nature being made against the professor. It was also in 2005 that, having met his future husband Sam, Professor Smith began to focus on cystic fibrosis.

Sam has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder which affects over 10,000 people in the UK and is carried by 1 in 25. The disorder arises from a mutation in the gene responsible for the transfer of salt and water in and out of cells, leading to a build up of thick, sticky mucus in the body, most often in the lungs. After meeting Sam, Professor Smith began with his colleagues to focus on the possibilities of genetic material (gene therapy) to treat cystic fibrosis. In particular, he and his colleagues looked at the ways in which DNA-binding systems could carry DNA across cell membranes.

In 2010-11, Sam’s health significantly deteriorated to the point where a lung transplant was necessary. In supporting his then-civil partner through this time, Professor Smith learnt about the drug heparin’s importance during lung transplant surgery. Heparin helps act against the coagulation or clotting of blood vessels. The heparin-binding agent protamine is administered after surgery to remove heparin from the bloodstream and re-enable clotting. While generally successful, some patients react adversely to protamine, leading to “heparin rebound”, where heparins de-absorbing from plasma proteins some hours later leads to bleeding. Professor Smith has since worked on and published several studies on potential new methods for heparin-binding (removing heparin from the blood system after surgery) and heparin sensing (determining how much heparin is in the body).

Professor Smith and his colleagues have made most progress on developing an understanding of the chemical process of self-assembly. Self-assembly is where a disordered system of pre-existing components forms an organised structure or pattern based solely on local interactions between themselves. SAMul (Self-assembled multivalency) is one concept which Professor Smith developed from his research, naming it after Sam. SAMul offers strong potential in the administering of heparin-binding agents, potentially allowing a patient to be treated with large quantities of an active agent as unbound material will simply degrade into non-toxic by-products.

In 2012, Professor Smith was one recipient of the prestigious annual Royal Society of Chemistry award, the Corday-Morgan Prize. He is also a strong advocate of video learning, with a YouTube channel boasting over 500,000 views. Now married to Sam and raising a son together, Professor Smith has expressed in past interviews his views on the importance of diversity in science, noting how a survey he conducted of University of York chemistry undergraduates and graduates underlined the importance of LGBT+ role models. He has also said how he will ‘never regret’ allowing his personal life to sharply influence his research work.

Ultimately, although Professor Smith is a leading expert in nanochemistry and self-assembling nanostructures and how such knowledge can be applied to biomaterials (substances engineered to interact with biological systems for medical purposes), it is the chemistry of love which has shaped his life the most.

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Editor 2018-19 | International Editor 2017/18. Final year Modern History and Politics student from Bedford. Drinks far too much tea for his own good.

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